While we are commemorating the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp, it is time to ask what the Holocaust means for young Germans today. How can Germany as a country deal with its Nazi-past? How are future generations going to remember this past, when there are no witnesses anymore to tell about the horror of genocide?
One of the defining moments of my school time came in 2009, when I was in ninth grade. Our school was visited by Ms Erna de Vries, a survivor of the Auschwitz death camp. As she told her story of living in pre-war Germany, deportation and narrowly avoiding death in Auschwitz, the audience was stunned, unable to speak. We realized that what we had learned in history classes, the terrors of the Nazi regime, was real and that it had happened right here, in the country of our childhood.
Over the last decades German society has experienced several phases of remembrance and coming to terms with the past. The immediate post-war years were often characterized by the wish to forget and make a fresh start, leaving the past behind. It was the movement of 1968 that took up the quest for truth again, asking for the guilt and responsibility of their parent’s generation.
Ever since, Germany has fought an open struggle with itself about how to deal with this legacy. By now Germans by and large have accepted that the burden of those unspeakable crimes does not wear off over time. It is part of our legacy to be reminded of that past, and to be reminders, warning of the dangers of extremism.
This has implications for German policy. Traditionally, the German-French connection has been the driving force behind European Integration, promoting peace on the continent. Also, West Germany has been tightly integrated into NATO and the Western bloc.
Of course, the sector most influenced by the Holocaust is the German-Israeli relationship. It was not until 1965 that the two countries took up diplomatic relations, but ever since, they are linked by what is officially called a “special relationship”. This relationship is based on common values of democracy, and historical connections.
This partnership reached a new high-point in 2008 when German Chancellor Merkel, speaking in the Knesset, described Israeli security as being part of the German raison d’état (“Staatsräson”). This means that the existence and security of the state of Israel, is part of the fundamental, determining interests of the German state.
This comes at a time when Israel finds itself in the focus of international criticism over the treatment of the Palestinians, illegal settlements on the West Bank and frequent warfare in the Gaza strip. Justified or not, these accusations leave Germans in a difficult position: Valid criticism of Israel is prone to be misunderstood as anti-Semitism. Can Germany have any credible stand when it comes to Israel?
In recent years Germans have refused to be unconditionally supportive of Israel. I think this is a healthy development. Living up to our historical responsibilities does not allow us to stand idle when injustices are being perpetrated, regardless where this happens. It is vital to find an independent, but morally valid stance in international conflicts.
But as the last Holocaust survivors are passing away, how can we entrust the generations after us with this historical responsibility? Just as these survivors have done, it is our task to tell, explain and remember. The mission that our past leaves us with is too important to get lost. We have to keep it alive in our words and deeds: Never again, never shall we forget.